By Laura Moss
In an interview conducted for CWILA, Savanna Scott Leslie asked Mark Medley, the Books Editor at the National Post, to contextualize the fact that 70 per cent of the books reviewed in the Post’s Books Section were by Canadian authors. “I’ve always given priority to Canadian titles,” Medley replied. “The number of pages devoted to books coverage in Canada is abysmal, so I feel a responsibility to use whatever space I have to feature Canadian authors. And it’s not charity—they deserve it. Despite shrinking book sections, despite lower advances, despite the struggles of (some) Canadian publishers, the quality of work in this country is as high as it’s ever been.” Similarly, Rachel Giese, senior editor at The Walrus, pointed out in her interview with CWILA last year that The Walrus has a policy of primarily reviewing books by Canadian writers. This year, commenting on the fact that The Walrus reviewed only Canadian books, Giese reiterated the policy, “We would only review an international title if it was about Canada, or connected to Canada in some way.” The sense of cultural responsibility to Canadian books and authors in evidence here extends across the country.
Our 2012 CWILA Count found that the majority of publications in Canada support Canadian books well. In the age of the corporatization of nearly everything, the CWILA 2012 numbers are less a good news story proving vibrant cultural nationalism and more evidence of communal resistance to a weakened literary economy. Reviewers, review editors, and publication boards make choices. They have chosen to support the arts in Canada by allotting space—however dwindling it may be—to work by Canadian writers.
I approach the CWILA Count as a literary historian whose research studies the relationship between public policy, arts funding, and cultural production in Canada. I am also book review editor for the literary journal Canadian Literature. I am thus interested in both the history of cultural production in Canada and its future. In my two roles, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the decline in public funding and infrastructural support for publishers and writers and the subsequent impact on Canadian writing. What I haven’t been able to assess until now is how much mutual support there is within Canada among the various players on what modernist poet F.R. Scott termed the “literary assembly line.” When Scott convened the first national conference on the Canadian literary economy in 1955 (remembered as the Kingston Conference), he wanted to show how interconnected the workers on this assembly line were. He explains his analogy:
The producer… is the creative writer whose manuscript, once completed, is passed along the line to the publisher, magazine editor, or CBC programme director. If accepted, it is then distributed to the public on the printed page or through broadcast. When printed it is available in libraries and bookstores. The critic and reviewer help to acquaint the readers with works being published, and to assess techniques and trends. All these workers on the assembly line participate in a common undertaking, however much their interests and outlook may vary; when they are all citizens of one country they have further points in common.
By bringing together representative figures from every point on the assembly line—those involved in the creation, production, distribution, and reception of literature in Canada—the 1955 conference captured mid-century attitudes toward Canadian literature, mass media, multiple reading and listening publics, and publishing. As a committed social democrat who served for years as the National Chairman of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Scott believed that the viability of one worker on the assembly line depended on the success of all assembly line workers. In their 2013 book Producing Canadian Literature, Kit Dobson and Smaro Kamboureli similarly set out to explore the “interface between writers and the market, the site where those concerns of art and business intersect and negotiate with one another.” Like these critics, CWILA aims to think through the material aspects of artistic production and reception.
The concerns Scott raised almost 60 years ago about the sustainability of the Canadian literary economy are just as relevant today. It’s tempting to see books, reviews, and readers in isolation, when in fact, they are a series of interconnected nodes. In the 2012 CWILA Count, we tried to capture a snapshot of the interdependence of some of the cultural producers who keep the literary assembly line going. Our snapshot reveals both generative shifts and pernicious trends.
The original 2011 CWILA Count last year found that although women published half the books in the country, they only got an average of 39 per cent of the book review space. The Count found that men wrote more reviews than women, men tended to review books by men (still a persistent trend), and books by male writers received more attention than books written by women authors. CWILA proved a gender bias in literary culture in Canada.
This year, we added a new set of metrics. Alongside gender, we also tracked whether the authors and publishers of the books reviewed were Canadian. Basically, we set out to extend the C in CWILA. We asked the volunteer publication counters to look at author bios and tag authors as Canadian if they self-identified as such, noted an affiliation with a location or an institution in Canada, or indicated Canadian residency. If books were co-authored by a Canadian and a non-Canadian, we counted the book in both columns. We further classified reviews by publisher (and, while we were at it, by genre). To the 14 publications we counted last year, we have added 11 new publications to get a wider range of publication venues—geographically and in terms of size, audience, and genre. For example, this year we added the reviews in the Vancouver Sun and Lemon Hound, in Briarpatch and the Malahat Review.
Why did we track nationality? We did not set out to track Canadian Content (CanCon) or measure the viability of cultural nationalism. We are not even remotely interested in policing citizenship. We are invested instead in strengthening Canadian literary culture by making it more equitable and fostering a healthier review culture. In order to more fully gauge the health of reviewing practices in this country, we decided we should distinguish between reviews of books in general and reviews of books by Canadian writers in particular. With the ongoing deflation of the book industry and the shrinking of book review space in many publications, we wanted to see how Canadian writers and publishers fared in the wide range of publication venues we counted. We asked, what kind of correlation is there between gender and nationality in the literary arts? What percentage of review space goes to works by Canadian publishers and Canadian authors? The idea was to measure to what degree the review sections of Canadian newspapers, journals, and magazines support the network of writers and publishers in Canada.
Our research shows that the majority of the publications we counted support Canadian writers exceptionally well. However, just as we discovered last year, women writers regardless of nationality are still at a disadvantage.
THE NUMBERS: CANADIAN VERSUS NON-CANADIAN AUTHORS
In total, of 3,092 reviews counted this year, two-thirds concerned books by Canadian writers. Ten of the 25 publications reviewed books by Canadians at least 90 per cent of the time. Indeed, two-thirds of the publications reviewed books by Canadians at least three-quarters of the time, and the majority of reviews are of works by Canadians in 22 out of 25 publications.
The overall 2012 CWILA Count numbers suggest that Canadian publications are, by and large, committed to evaluating Canadian writers and invested in carrying on critical conversations about Canadian literature. That said, Canadian writers are part of a global literary community, so it’s important to dedicate some review space to literature from around the world. This is part of shifting and extending the C in CWILA. Canadian culture is looking to itself while positioning itself in a globalized world at the same time. The optimal proportion is difficult to pinpoint, but the current two-thirds–to–one-third overall balance of reviews of books by Canadian and non-Canadian authors suggests that while there is strong support for Canadian writers from within Canada, Canadian audiences are engaged in critical conversations about literature from beyond Canada’s borders. The amount of attention paid to Canadian books goes well beyond CanCon: 66.5 per cent is almost double the current CRTC CanCon requirement for radio and television of 35 per cent of prime time space dedicated to works by Canadian artists and producers. On the whole, this aspect of our findings is heartening. There’s undeniable evidence that Canadian literature is important to the majority of Canadian publications we counted.
And yet, of the three publications that reviewed books by non-Canadian writers more often than books by Canadian writers, two are commercial newspapers with large audiences: the Winnipeg Free Press at 57 per cent non-Canadian, and The Globe and Mail at 63 per cent non-Canadian. Brick is the third publication on this list, but with only eight reviews (five non-Canadian), a statistically significant argument would be weak. While these two newspapers are only a fraction of the publications CWILA analyzed, they have large readerships, cultural and economic impact, and at least for the Globe, national distribution. Together, the three publications reviewed 446 books by Canadian writers and 748 by non-Canadian writers. In comparison, although Quill and Quire and Canadian Literature reviewed more Canadian-authored books (337 and 334, respectively) combined than the newspapers, these two publications have a substantially smaller, if more focused, readership. Circulation numbers for the Globe and Free Press combined for 2011 sit at 2.7 million readers per week. Q&Q sits at an estimated circulation of 5,000 per issue, with an estimated 25,000 readers, and CL reviews get 1,000 hits per day.
The only commercial newspaper in the 2012 CWILA Count that reviewed substantially fewer books by non-Canadian authors (84) than Canadian authors (202) was the National Post. This reflects the editorial decision Mark Medley discusses in the CWILA interview mentioned earlier.
Perhaps the Globe and Mail dedicated two-thirds of its review space in 2012 to works by non-Canadian writers because it was trying to compete against the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Times, so it opted to review more globally than nationally or locally. Perhaps it reviewed the broadest range of commercially successful books, and those were often non-Canadian. In her CWILA interview, Gillian Jerome asked Jared Bland, the new Globe and Mail books editor (as of March 2013), to comment on the fact that the Globe allotted 35 per cent of its review space in 2012 to Canadian books. He replied, “I’m reluctant to comment on the numbers of another editorship, but if you were to tell me that similar numbers occurred during our [his and deputy books editor Lisan Juntras’] first year, I’d be neither surprised nor troubled. We have no internal CanCon targets. Our goal is to talk about the books we think are interesting, and would be of interest to Canadians. A lot of those will be Canadian. A lot won’t. Canadians don’t read exclusively books by Canadians—as the bestseller lists remind us forcefully each week.” He concludes, “But we will continue to make Canadian books an important part of our coverage.”
Bland’s comments remind me why CWILA focuses on reviews. Book reviews are mediated spaces between the book and the potential reading public. As such, they target an imagined audience with imagined tastes—and they, in turn, help create those tastes. Reviews tell us different stories than sales numbers. Reviews help readers decide if they’ll invest their time and money—both limited resources—in a book. Reviews engage in an ongoing critical conversation about contemporary arts and culture. The 2012 Count numbers show that, by and large, reviewers and review editors in newspapers, magazines, and journals imagine that their readers want to read books by Canadians.
CORRELATING GENDER AND CANADIAN VERSUS NON-CANADIAN AUTHORSHIP
Total Number of Canadian and Non-Canadian Authors Reviewed by Gender:
- Canadian Men:1,212
- Canadian Women:1,057
- Non-Canadian Men: 780
- Non-Canadian Women: 410
What happens when we correlate data about Canadian authors with gender data?
Canadian men (35.04%) and Canadian women (30.56%) share two-thirds of review space. Of the remaining third, non-Canadian men garner almost twice as much review space as non-Canadian women. In total, literary publications in Canada reviewed almost three times as many books by Canadian men last year as books by non-Canadian women.
From the sum, it seems the lower number of books reviewed for non-Canadian writers is a result of the decision by so many publications to concentrate review space on books by Canadians. However, if we look at the publications that review books by non-Canadians as well as Canadians, some different stories emerge.
Once again, the Globe and Mail numbers for 2012 are fascinating. Reviews of non-Canadian men authors (509 reviews) and non-Canadian women authors (253) garnered more space in the Globe than Canadian men (219) or Canadian women (191); the Globe published 2.5 reviews of books by non-Canadian male writers for every review of a book by a Canadian woman writer. In this publication, Canadian women were the least reviewed writers. The same pattern held, to a lesser degree, for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Vancouver Sun.
The numbers for the National Post tell a different story. Canadian men and women were reviewed almost at par, but non-Canadian women were substantially less likely to be reviewed than Canadian writers or men from outside Canada (Canadian men—109 reviews, Canadian women—103, Canadian genderqueer people —1, non-Canadian men—65, and non-Canadian women—28. This pattern is consistent with the remainder of the other publications that reviewed non-Canadians authors.
The gender bias may be improving in Canada, but the authors with the most international clout (indicated by review space) are still male. It takes an awful lot—a major prize nomination or huge international sales—for a non-Canadian woman writer to be reviewed in Canada. One result of strong support for Canadian authors by Canadian publications is that we have a harder time hearing women’s voices from outside Canada within the country. I wonder if reviewers and publications in other countries are prioritizing international writers and reviewing more men than women (see VIDA numbers for one important answer). I also wonder what the effect of this might be for Canadian women writers getting reviewed outside Canada.
This year, we noted the publishers of books reviewed and found that although the most review space goes to books produced by multinational publishers—with Random House and McClelland & Stewart in the lead, followed by HarperCollins (and HarperCollins Canada)—review editors still also clearly support Canadian publishers and the smaller presses in Canada. The total number of unique publishers (Canadian and non-Canadian) represented in the book reviews we counted was 489.
In total, publications by Canadian large publishers and small presses received 62.8 per cent of review space in the periodicals we analyzed in the 2012 CWILA Count.
We decided to dig deeper into Canadian publishers to see the distribution between large and small presses. The result is that, as with Canadian authors, Canadian small presses are well supported. Books published by Canadian large presses received 55.4 per cent of review space allocated to Canadian publishers compared to the 44.6 per cent small presses received.
Our methodology here requires some explanation. Originally, we had planned to classify presses as large or small based on annual sales figures, but those were difficult to come by. So instead, we based our count on how much the publishers received from the Canada Book Fund (CBF). The grant amount is based on their annual sales, but not equivalent to their sales. We counted presses that received more than $100,000 from the CBF as a large press. Some publishers didn’t receive grants, so we had to decide whether they were small or large presses based on information from their website, namely the number of books they publish in a year and whether or not they were imprints of large multinational corporations like Pearson, Random House, or Simon & Schuster. The phrase “large press” includes House of Anansi, Annick Press, and Arsenal Pulp Press, among other large Canadian publishers.
Of the Canadian independent presses, Anansi leads the way with 92 reviews, while Arsenal Pulp, Coach House Books, Cormorant, and Biblioasis each received approximately 45 reviews, and presses like BookThug and imprints like Freehand Books got around 20 reviews. In total, publications by 228 Canadian large presses and small presses received review space in the periodicals we analyzed.
As with the support of Canadian writers by the publications we measured, there’s evidence of a sustained commitment to reviewing books produced in Canada. Despite the dominance of transnational companies in the global book trade, presses that have played an important role in the development of Canadian literature—Anansi, Coach House, and Arsenal Pulp, for instance—are still getting noticed, and their books are being reviewed. It’s unclear if the review editors of the publications we measured are champions of Canadian presses, if they’re trying to compensate for the institutional weight of the large corporations, if some feel beholden to the national interest because of government grants or public money invested in their publications, or if they’re just interested in supporting the broad range of books produced in Canada. But again, as with support of Canadian authors, the implication seems to be that reviews are being used to bolster the Canadian industry, and perhaps even to resist the corporatization of Canadian culture.
In addition to recording gender, publisher, and national affiliation, CWILA also collected author names, book titles, genres, and reviewers’ names for each review counted. To get a more detailed picture of review culture in Canada and to compare across the wide range of publications we counted, we decided to see what patterns emerged when considering which authors and books received the most attention in review form.
In total, 75 authors in Canada received five or more reviews in our Count.
- Men—42, Women—32, Genderqueer People—1
- Canadian—64, Non-Canadian—11
- Non-Canadian Men—8, Non-Canadian Women—3
The gender disparity for the top-reviewed authors is clear, with a ratio of 4:3 Canadian men to women, and 8:3 non-Canadian men to women. The 6:1 ratio of Canadian to non-Canadian writers is also noteworthy. This is a considerably greater difference than the 2:1 average ratio of Canadian to non-Canadian authors across all publications. Reviews of books by non-Canadian writers tend to be of prize-winning superstars (and thus receive multiple reviews), or the author is reviewed only once or twice, so doesn’t fall under the most-reviewed category.
The author who had the most reviews in the 2012 Count was Richard Wagamese with 12 reviews (of Indian Horse, One Story, One Song, Runaway Dreams, and The Next Sure Thing). From the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario,
Wagamese published four books in 2011 and 2012. Although his reviews were distributed between his publications, Indian Horse, a timely novel that explores the legacy of abuse in residential schools, was the most frequently reviewed of all his books.
The most-reviewed authors, receiving eight or more reviews in the 2012 Count, sometimes for multiple books, were:
- Richard Wagamese
- Tamara Faith Berger
- William Gibson
- Will Ferguson
- Taras Grescoe
- Steven Heighton
- Christopher Hitchens
- Hilary Mantel
- Alix Ohlin
Books by the following authors were reviewed seven times in the 2012 Count:
- Heather Birrell
- Annabel Lyon
- Nancy Richler
- Eva Stachniak
- Kamal Al-Solaylee
- George Bowering
- Tim Bowling
- Bill Gaston
- Rawi Hage
- Neil Young
- Richard Ford
As poetry gets reviewed a third as often as fiction, for a poet to receive five or six reviews indicates substantial critical engagement and public interest, so I include notice of those poets here. Lorna Crozier and Don McKay were the most often reviewed poets, with a total of six reviews each for Crozier’s The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things and McKay’s Paradoxides and The Shell of the Tortoise. Other poets to get five reviews for their poetry were E.D. Blodgett, Anne Carson, Stephanie Bolster, and Priscila Uppal.
The rest of the top-75 list is well distributed between young and not-so-young fiction and non-fiction writers, with Alice Munro, M.G. Vassanji, Katrina Onstad, Linda Spalding, Ivan Coyote, and David Bergen also figuring highly. The reviews represent a wide array of writers, topics, and genres, going well beyond any canonical list of Canadian literature.
The book that received by far the most reviews in our Count was Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger (11 reviews). No other book cracked ten reviews. A look at the Coach House Books promotional webpage for this novel about a teenage girl’s sexuality shows that it has now received critical attention well beyond our numbers.
A dozen books garnered seven or eight reviews in our Count:
- 419 by Will Ferguson
- Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe
- Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee
- Mad Hope by Heather Birrell
- Pinboy: A Memoir by George Bowering
- Canada by Richard Ford
- Carnival by Rawi Hage
- Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
- The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
- The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
- Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young
COUNT TOTAL, REVIEWS BY BOOK GENRE
Fiction: approximately 1,300
Non-fiction: approximately 1,160
(“approximately” because some books cannot be or refuse to be easily classified by genre)
That a book of poetry was almost three and a half times less likely to be reviewed than a book of fiction is not surprising, but it is noteworthy. (When I showed the number of poetry books reviewed to my statistician husband, he was shocked that it was this high. It’s clearly a matter of perspective.)
MOST REVIEWS: TOP 20 REVIEWERS IN 2012
We didn’t set out to measure the top 20 reviewers. However, we noticed that several names recur. A few reviewers have a good deal of influence.
- Martin Levin (Globe and Mail): 42 + 139 (Books Editor attributed)
- H.J. Kirchhoff (Globe and Mail): 151
- Margaret Cannon (Globe and Mail): 108
- Tracy Sherlock (Vancouver Sun): 58 (includes Books Editor attributed)
- Philip Marchand (National Post): 50
- Sarah Weinman (National Post, Quill & Quire): 34
- Carla Lucchetta (Vancouver Sun): 25
- Robert J. Wiersema (Vancouver Sun, Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, National Post): 22
- David Berry (National Post, Quill & Quire): 21
- Steven W. Beattie (Canadian Notes & Queries, Quill & Quire, Walrus, National Post): 18
- Zoe Whittall (Vancouver Sun, Globe and Mail, Walrus, National Post): 17
- Donna Bailey Nurse (Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, National Post): 17
- Emily Donaldson (Canadian Notes & Queries, Quill & Quire, Globe and Mail): 16
- Candace Fertile (Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Quill & Quire): 16
- Sherie Posesorski (National Post): 15
- Nathan Whitlock (Quill & Quire, Canadian Notes & Queries): 14
- Jonathan Ball (Winnipeg Free Press, This): 13
- Cori Dusmann (Quill & Quire): 13
- Brett Josef Grubisic (National Post, Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun): 13
- Adam James (Globe and Mail): 11
Looking at the list of the 75 most reviewed authors and books, we wondered how much of a correlation there is between nominations for prizes and reviews received. The answer is a lot. I suspect that reviews beget prizes and prizes beget reviews. The more a book has been reviewed (a form of critical legitimation), the more likely it will be nominated for a prize (a form of cultural validation). The more frequently it is nominated for a prize, the greater its chance of being noticed and attracting reviews. An author’s own prize history also comes into play, with past nominations highly correlated with reviews received. What critic James English called the “economy of prestige” of prize culture is alive and well in Canada. It’s no accident that Will Ferguson’s Giller Prize–winning novel 419 and Taras Grescoe’s Writer’s Trust finalist Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile were the second most reviewed books in Canada in 2012.
From a preliminary examination of our data, it seems that the prize with the highest correlation to reviews is the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In her book Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture, Gillian Roberts also suggests that the Giller has the most impact on sales (compared to the Governor General’s Literary Awards and Canada Reads). Most of the books longlisted and all the books shortlisted for the Giller in 2012 are in the top books reviewed that year. A Booker Prize nomination and a nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction also have a strong impact on the number of reviews received, particularly for non-Canadian authors. There’s still much work to be done analyzing this aspect of our findings.
An important statistic that we’ve not been able to gather is the distribution of reviews based on the racial or ethnic backgrounds of authors. A number of scholars and critics affiliated with CWILA have created an independent research network at the University of British Columbia, funded by the UBC Centre for Gender, Race, and Social Justice, to try to determine if such a count is useful or even ethically possible. Indeed, we ask if there is a way of performing such a count—through a self-identification survey, perhaps?—without regressively labelling someone as a member of a racial group. See Larissa Lai’s interview for further discussion of this issue.
At the Kingston Conference in 1955, critic Desmond Pacey argued that “one thing that would enormously stimulate the Canadian literary consciousness would be more vigorous and more numerous book reviews sections in our newspapers and magazines.” Looking at the CWILA Count numbers for 2012, I think that the literary community—from a variety of positions on the literary assembly line—has stepped up to Pacey’s call. Our numbers suggests that the majority of the publications counted are invested in the sustainability of Canadian literature. I go so far as arguing that there’s evidence of communal resistance to a weakened literary economy where space restrictions, cutbacks to subsidies, the corporatization of culture, and shrinking budgets meet with strategic choices to review works by Canadian writers and publishers. Our everyday practices of reading and discussing books contribute to the wider sphere of engaged Canadian public culture.
What we haven’t reached yet, however, is sustained gender equality. Women writers, regardless of nationality, are still at a disadvantage. We know editors are talking and thinking about gender parity in their reviews sections, but I’m concerned that there might be a shift away from that interest in favour of national issues if reviews sections continue to shrink. I worry that if publications concentrate on bolstering the Canadian book industry, gender will be further subsumed by national interests.
—Laura Moss, July 2013
Laura Moss is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia where she teaches Canadian and African literatures. She is the Book Review editor of the literary journal Canadian Literature and, for 2013-14, she is also the Acting Editor of the journal. She is the co-editor (with Cynthia Sugars) of the 2 volume anthology Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts, the editor of Is Canada Postcolonial?: Unsettling Canadian Literature, and of Leaving the Shade of the Middle Ground: The Poetry of F.R. Scott. Moss has published articles on a wide range of authors and subjects including Zadie Smith and everyday hybridity, Margaret Atwood as an icon abroad, Rohinton Mistry and realism, Antje Krog and the South African TRC, the history of multiculturalism policy and public arts policies in Canada, and the controversy over public art memorials in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She is a board member of CWILA and an organizing member of the GRSJ, an independent CWILA Research Network at UBC.
Dobson, Kit and Smaro Kamboureli. Producing Canadian Literature: Authors Speak on the Literary Marketplace. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2013. Print.
Jerome, Gillian. “An Interview with Jared Bland, Books Editor at The Globe and Mail.” CWILA 2013. Web.
Roberts, Gillian. Prizing Literature: the Celebration and Circulation of National Culture. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011. Print.
Scott, F.R. “Introduction.” Writing in Canada: Proceedings of the Canadian Writers’ Conference Held at Queen’s University July 1955. George Whalley, Ed. Toronto: Macmillan, 1956. Print.
Scott Leslie, Savanna. “An Interview with Mark Medley, Books Editor at The National Post.” “An Interview with Rachel Giese, Senior Editor at The Walrus.” CWILA 2013. Web.
Published July 5, 2013